On 6 November, a month before the attack on Pearl Harbour, the operational order of the Japanese South Seas Force said that, after securing Guam, it would assemble in Truk and, with the cooperation of the Navy, occupy Rabaul.
By mid-December Japanese scout and reconnaissance aircraft were frequently spotted over Rabaul. By early January the Japanese had reasonably accurate knowledge of Australian troop deployments and equipment in Rabaul and detailed orders were issued.
The first bombs fell on 4 January 1942 at 10.35 am, killing twelve and wounding thirty. Most of those who died were people from the Trobriand Islands having their first meal following being rescued after six weeks lost at sea. The bombing continued for the next three weeks until Rabaul was invaded.
On 8 January, Malaita left Rabaul with Japanese internees and a few remaining European women. The last plane from Sydney arrived on 16 January.
The commander of Lark Force, Lieutenant Colonel Scanlan, had based the defence of Rabaul on the assumption of the availability of a brigade group that never eventuated. He had made no plans for retreat or withdrawal. Indeed, on Christmas Day 1941, he issued the grim order that “there shall be no faint hearts, no thought of surrender, every man shall die in his pit.”
The raid by Japanese carrier-based aircraft on 20 January was the beginning of the end. In an engagement with 80 bombers and 40 fighters lasting less than ten minutes, three of RAAF 24 Squadron’s eight remaining Wirraways were shot down, one crashed on take-off and two were damaged in crash-landings.
Wing Commander Lerew had famously signalled RAAF HQ in Melbourne with the motto Nos Morituri Te Salutamus (‘we who are about to die salute you’), the phrase uttered by gladiators in ancient Rome before entering combat.
“For sheer, cold-blooded heroism I have never seen anything to compare with the pilots of those Wirraways”, Sergeant FS Smith, AIF, said later. “They knew they were doomed but they had all the guts in the world.”
At the end of the attack, Herstein, on which Acting Administrator Page had hoped civilians might be embarked, had been torn from its moorings and lay burning in the harbour. Thirty of the crew, mostly Norwegian, were later captured by the Japanese. Most were lost on Montevideo Maru.
The next day – 21 January – reports were received in Rabaul that a large convoy was approaching from the north-west. It was a Japanese naval taskforce of eight cruisers, twelve destroyers, nine submarines and two aircraft carriers with 171 aircraft.
On 21 January, there were also air strikes on Bulolo, Salamaua and Lae, the administrative centre since September when Administrator Sir Walter McNicoll moved there because of volcanic activity in Rabaul.
McNicoll, a very sick man, realised a Japanese occupation was approaching and handed responsibility for civil administration to the NGVR, before leaving for Port Moresby and Australia.
Civil administration of the Mandated Territory effectively ended as the Japanese occupied Rabaul on 23 January and formally ceased in Papua on 14 February 1942. The separate Papuan and New Guinea administrative units were combined in April into the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU).
By that evening of 21 January all Rabaul civilians had either taken shelter in a nearby precinct called Refuge Gully to await the Japanese or had left town by vehicle for distant plantations.
The next day, 22 January, Rabaul was bombed by fighters and dive bombers. No RAAF aircraft were available, the indigenous population was terrified and the troops apprehensive. Rabaul had all but fallen.
The invasion fleet carrying Major-General Tomitaro Horii’s 5300 strong South Seas Force, a brigade group based on the 55th Division, that had also taken Guam, arrived off their anchoring points at 11.40 pm.
Soon after midnight on Friday 23 January, Major Bill Owen’s A Company heard the hum of an approaching aeroplane and watched as a parachute flare illuminated the harbour. Owen’s 90 AIF and 50 NGVR had taken a defensive position along the harbour shoreline north of Vulcan volcano to await the attack.
A fleet of transports launched landing barges, each holding between 50 and 100 men, at six points around the harbour. At 1 am landing craft could be seen heading towards Matupit island.
“The fighting was effectively over within a few hours,” says Australian historian, Emeritus Professor Hank Nelson. “Probably less than 100 Japanese and Australians died in battle. The Australians were too few to oppose most landings, they were quickly divided, communications between companies and headquarters were lost early.
“Those Australians who fought stubbornly were bypassed and naval and air-power directed against them.”
By 8 am the main body of the occupation force was mopping-up and Rabaul township was occupied. Soon after 9, Lark Force headquarters received reports that the Japanese were coming “in their thousands” and could not be held.
At about 11, Colonel Scanlan gave the order “every man for himself”. No further defence was feasible. Australian forces withdrew and broke into small parties. Men tried to escape to the north and south coasts of New Britain, struggling through unknown country without maps, medicines and stores. In all, only 450 soldiers and civilians managed to escape.
At 11.30 the Japanese naval force moved up the harbour in line. By noon, the Gazelle Peninsula was in the hands of the invading force. Naval combat troops captured Vunakanau airfield at 1.10 pm. The invasion of Rabaul was complete.
From: The Tragedy of the Montevideo Maru: Time for Recognition
Copyright Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society